How do you drink your vodka?
That’s a question Absolut Vodka wanted to answer when they hired a research firm that was tasked with figuring out how people drink vodka and other liquors.
But researchers didn’t simply poll people about their alcohol consumption to find the answers. Instead, the researchers decided to focus on the emotional nuances of the social setting where people share alcoholic drinks.
So, they went to a party.
What they discovered from watching party-goers is this: what matters most to the attendees and their hosts were the stories that went along with the drinks. Researchers listened as people began sharing personal stories about certain brands of liquor playing a memorable role in their lives, such as during a vacation.
Based on the information gathered from those observations, researchers were able to suggest innovative ways that Absolut Vodka could become more memorable to consumers.
Using such observational methods are part of corporate anthropology, an extension of traditional anthropology that is used in non-traditional settings, explains Andrea Simon, who has a PhD in anthropology and now serves as a corporate anthropologist.
“The reason I love anthropology is because it teaches you to see, feel and think in new ways,” she says. “It’s no longer the strongest and smartest who will survive – it’s who is the most adaptive.”
Simon explains the Absolut story is a good example of how companies can use new perspectives to be more competitive.
“We (corporate anthropologists) see the things that are really happening out there in the ﬁeld, not what business leaders think is going on. We look for the deeper meaning in the interactions that make up people’s lives and the objects they surround themselves with,” she says.
That’s not to say that everyone will welcome what the corporate anthropologists dig up.
“The brain hates change,” she explains. “It’s going to fight you. It’s going to want your old habits to take over. It’s always trying to fit what we see and hear into what we think should be there.”
That’s why it’s so important that before the process begins, leaders must be willing to embrace change and to see and hear things differently, she says. It might even be painful as it becomes clear, for example, that a current product cannot survive as it currently is in the marketplace 10 years from now – or even next year.
“If I’m working with someone and the answer to every question is, ‘no, but…’ then I know that you can’t see what’s coming,” Simon says. “What I need for the person to do is say ‘yes, and…’ or ‘that’s a great idea.’ You’re either ready to be an outsider because of the way you think – or you’re going right back to groupthink.”
Simon, author of “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” says there are several ways to put anthropological practices into action in an organization. Among them she suggests you need to:
“You have to think about things in a new way to survive,” Simon says. “If you don’t, you’re going to be an archeological ruin.”